Ford let me have a first-look at the 2023 Ford Maverick Tremor, the most off-road capable version of the Ford Escape platform-based Maverick minitruck. Though I wasn’t able to drive it, I crawled around underneath the small unibody pickup; here’s how I — an experienced off-roader — think it will handle on the trails.
Ford had a Maverick Tremor set up at Michigan’s Holly Oaks ORV Park — a relatively new off-road park that was long overdue, as Detroit-based manufacturers lacked local spots outside of their proving grounds to test vehicles’ off-road capabilities — as part of a “Maverick Content Capture” opportunity for journalists. Basically, FoMoCo wants to keep the buzz going until people can start ordering these in September before theoretically taking delivery at some point this fall. I was glad to check out the little truck, because I’m a big fan of the base Maverick; an off-road model does have me a bit intrigued.
Anyway, let’s get straight to it.
If you’ve read any of my off-road reviews, then you’ve seen this phrase before: “Geometry is king.” All of my off-road analyses begin with with these words because a vehicle’s inches and angles represent the most important factor in determining its offroad capability. For a vehicle to be good off-road, it needs small front and rear overhangs, a small (but not too small) belly between its two axles, and plenty of ground clearance in the right locations. A vehicle can have all the locking differentials and mud-terrain tires and skid plates and low range gearing it wants, but if it can’t get its front tires onto an obstacle without bashing the front bumper, if it can’t crest a hill without getting the belly hung up, if it can’t climb or descend a grade without dragging the rear end, and if it can’t avoid getting hung up on rocks and stumps due to ground clearance issues, then it’s pretty useless in the rough stuff.
Approach, Departure, Breakover Angles
Already, since we’re talking about a pickup truck, we have to lower the bar of acceptability for the Maverick. Due to the need to package at least a 4.5 foot bed along with a four-door cab (since regular cabs are hard sells these days), it’s difficult for a pickup truck to offer truly impressive breakover and departure angles; even the Wrangler-based Jeep Gladiator struggles in these areas when compared to SUVs like the Ford Bronco and Jeep Wrangler. So the Maverick isn’t teed up to excel in this area.
Still, its 30.7 degree approach angle is excellent. That’s higher than that of the decently-capable Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk (arguably the king of off-road crossovers, which are probably more likely to be cross-shopped with the Maverick Tremor than other pickups), and frankly, it’s the most important of the off-road angles. Once you’ve gotten those front tires onto an obstacle, you can use momentum to drag the belly and rear end over, leveraging the skid plates and rear hitch to prevent major damage.
The 19.9 degree breakover angle isn’t great, which again, isn’t a surprise since the Maverick is a pickup. But add the fact that this pickup is based on a unibody crossover platform from the Escape, and you end up with a fairly low-hanging body that, because it’s now a truck, has to be rather long. It is worth noting that Ford’s own Explorer Timberline (which I drove off-road a few months back; it was just okay) has a one degree lower breakover angle, and the F-150 lightning — a full-size truck — also has a more vulnerable belly at 17.6 degrees (but of course, it has a giant battery hanging off the frame). Plus, the base model four-door Wrangler’s breakover angle isn’t much better at 20.3. So the Maverick’s figure, while less than optimal, isn’t leagues worse than everything else.
As for that 22.2 degree departure angle? Well, again, this ain’t great. In fact, it’s not that easy to find an off-road-oriented vehicle with a lower figure than that. The huge Grand Wagoneer with the base, non-air springs has worse breakover and departure angles (at 18.5 and 21.1, respectively); so does the Toyota Rav4 TRD Off-Road. So the Maverick isn’t literally the worst, but suffice it to say: That belly and especially that rear end are going to be the Maverick’s main off-road limitations.
Ground Clearance (Which is related to Approach, Departure, and Breakover Angles)
So the Maverick Tremor has a legitimately good approach angle, which is more important than the breakover and departure angles, which aren’t good. But 9.4 inches of ground clearance is good! (The Tremor is raised an inch over the FX4; its suspension is a bit softer than that of other Mavericks for improved off-road ride, though the suspension change did limit the towing capacity to 2,000 pounds – other Mavericks can tow up to 4,000). Well, yes, that figure is great compared to the competitive set, but the absolute minimum ground clearance figure doesn’t tell the whole story of how well a vehicle can avoid getting hung up. The location of the ground clearance matters, too.
Take the Jeep Cherokee XJ, which I consider one of the most perfect four-door vehicles ever from an off-road geometry standpoint; from the factory, it has a ground clearance rating of less than nine inches. The Maverick Tremor has it beat. But that point of lowest clearance is at the differentials, right between the wheels of each axle. Since off-roading involves placing your tires strategically atop the tallest obstacles on the trail, those differentials tend to be picked up to the point where they clear most danger. The Maverick’s point of lowest ground clearance is possibly also between the wheels of each axle, but the lower front fascia and the rocker panels aren’t much higher (whereas on the Jeep, they’re raised way above nine inches).
The issue with that is that getting those tires onto an obstacle is key, and when a wheel comes down from, say, a large rock, even if the hardware between the wheels has been lifted up over the obstacle, the truck — specifically the rocker panels, which are just aft of the tires — will want to come down on top of the rock. Low rocker panels are a huge hindrance to a vehicle’s off-road capability, and it’s really unfixable unless you chuck a giant lift on the truck (which, given the Maverick’s independent suspension, isn’t feasible). Adding rock rails to protect the rockers would reduce the ground clearance even further to the point where it wouldn’t be worthwhile. So this is just a limitation that Maverick Tremor drivers will have to deal with.
One way to mitigate the deleterious off-road effects of less-than-optimal geometry is to make sure that any vulnerable bits are well protected. On that front, the Maverick Tremor does have some protection in the form of skid plates, but is vulnerable in a number of other areas, as I found after crawling in the sand to get a good look underneath. Let’s start up front and work our way back.
As you can see at the nose, there’s quite a bit of plastic down low and vulnerable, which isn’t ideal (you’d rather have that nose up off the ground a bit more), but at least it’s black plastic, so scratches shouldn’t be nearly as obvious as if it were a painted part, and replacing it should be much cheaper.
I will mention that, up front just ahead of the charge air cooler, are four skinny grille “bars” that look about as strong as stale McDonalds french fries.
Heading farther underneath, I noticed that the joint between the bottom of that plastic front fascia and the underbody saw a bit of damage on the preproduction truck I was looking at, but aft of that was a large steel skid plate that protects the (transverse) engine, the eight-speed automatic transmission, the steering rack, and likely also the Power Transfer Unit (which is similar to a transfer case on a traditional 4×4). Here’s another look:
Much of the Maverick Tremor’s underbody is covered by fibrous shields, which offer aerodynamic advantages as well as acoustic improvements and some amount of dent mitigation. They are, however, prone to both trapping dirt and tearing. Here you can see some tears in the material:
And here you can see how it traps dirt up against the body. This doesn’t seem optimal from a rust mitigation standpoint, but I won’t pretend to know more about that than Ford engineers, who I’m sure put this thing through all sorts of saline baths.
The Maverick’s fuel tank is hard to see, as it’s hidden by one of the aforementioned underbody shields. Whether it’s protected via any sort of metal skidplate underneath, I’m unsure, but I don’t think so, as the Maverick Tremor is said to have the same underbody protection treatment as the Maverick FX4, and — per Motor Trend — it’s got just “a front bash plate, engine skid, and charcoal canister shield.” So pretty much that front part of the vehicle where the engine, transmission, and steering system are is armored while the rest of the vehicle isn’t.
The aluminum rear drive unit certainly isn’t protected:
Well, I guess it is somewhat protected by the exhaust, which — particularly where it runs under the rear subframe — is rock-bait:
To be fair to the rear-drive unit and exhaust (and those low-hanging stamped lower control arms, for that matter) — and to reiterate a point I made earlier — that area between the wheels is one that an experienced driver should be able to keep off the ground by making sure the wheels drive up over obstacles instead of straddling those obstacles.
Overall, I think the two main areas I’d be concerned about while off-roading are the areas that tend to see the most damage as the result of marginal breakover and departure angles. Sure, the exhaust and fuel tank could take a few hits, but it’s the rockers and the rear bumper that tend to suffer the most as a result of a big belly and a big arse. A less-than-stellar departure angle can sometimes be aided by a trailer hitch that one can just drag on a slope or rock, but the Mavericks’ hitch is integrated up into the bumper, so actually the lowest bit that would impact the terrain is the lower plastic part of the rear bumper, which I’d be concerned about damaging or tearing off.
As for the breakover angle concern, well, you can see what happens when you’ve got rockers that sit so low:
Luckily, the black plastic hides the damage fairly well when viewed from a distance.
Let’s talk a bit about the drivetrain, starting with the most important bit: the tires. They’re ~29-inch Falken Wildpeak A/Ts, which tend to offer a good blend of off-road capability and on-road comfort (these are the AT3Ws, which I don’t think I’ve tested, but I do have experience with similar Falken Wildpeak A/Ts). I haven’t driven the truck to test the grip, but these seem like a good choice for a factory tire, and should offer plenty of traction on dirt and rock trails, and okay grip in mud.
Getting torque to those wheels shouldn’t be much of a problem, as the Maverick leverages a four-wheel drive layout heavily based on that of the Ford Bronco Sport (see diagram below — ignore the percentages in parentheses), with a twin-clutch read drive unut (RDU) that offers an axle “lock” mode for the two rear wheels. It’s not a true “locker” like what the Bronco or other Tremor F-series trucks have, so its torque limits are going to be lower, but the system should ensure that, unlike in a traditional open differential, even when one rear wheel has little grip torque can get to the opposite wheel to keep the vehicle moving.
You’ll notice in the diagram above a “PTU with disconnect clutch” hooked up to the transmission. This device, like a traditional transfer case, is where power is split to the front and rear wheels. The disconnect clutch allows the rear drivetrain (the bits denoted by the dotted lines) to be disconnected so the Maverick can drive in just front-wheel drive mode for maximum efficiency. (I’m assuming the clutches in the RDU disconnect the rear wheels from the rear driveshaft so that the latter isn’t spun unnecessarily while in front-drive mode).
This PTU disconnect clutch can be “locked” so that the vehicle doesn’t switch to front-drive mode when, say, the driver is off-road and wants to ensure torque gets to that rear axle. Here’s the four-wheel drive lock button, just to the left of the rear axle “lock” switch:
Also shown in this switch panel is the “Tremor” off-road mode button, which allows the drive to choose between “pavement, mud, sand or snow, and towing.” The system’s job is to make sure the drivetrain is optimized for different conditions where different amounts of wheel spin/torque transfer might be needed for different scenarios. To the right of that is the traction control button, and to the right of that is Ford’s Trail Control switch, which is basically off-road cruise control. Ford tends to do an excellent job calibrating this based on my experience testing other vehicles, making it easy to slowly cruise down the trail without having to give too much pedal input.
The Trail Control option is especially helpful since the Maverick Tremor, like the Bronco Sport, doesn’t have a low-range option to multiply engine torque. With a 4.69-to-one first gear and 3.81-to-one final drive ratio, the vehicle ends up multiplying the 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four engine’s considerable 277 lb-ft of torque by only up to a factor of 18. As I found with the Baby Bronco, this crawl ratio isn’t enough to get the vehicle up and over difficult obstacles at extremely low speeds in a controllable manner; crawling the Maverick Tremor over steep and technical courses will likely require a decent amount of left foot braking. This is hardly a surprise, as a Ford rep told me at the preview that the Maverick Tremor isn’t really meant for rock crawling.
Where the Maverick Tremor could do reasonably well is in sand driving, where there aren’t big rocks threatening to scar up those rocker panels, and the changes in slope aren’t as likely to get the belly or rear end hung up. The 250 horsepower, 277 lb-ft motor should offer enough grunt to sling the vehicle up grades; the gearing could still be an issue in some scenarios, and my early experience with the Bronco Sport does give me pause about the vehicle’s thermal robustness (though, unless I’ve missed it, I haven’t heard of many customer complaints regarding the four-wheel drive system getting too hot, so maybe it’s not a big deal), but I bet throwing this thing around some dunes or up some steep not-too-rocky grades could be fun. I wish the Tremor came with a camera up front like many off-road vehicles so I can see what’s ahead when I’m cresting a grade, but this is less important on a smaller vehicle like the Maverick than on the high-hood Bronco, for example. There’s decent power and there should be decent traction, so some dunes or some rolling hills would likely be a blast.
The Maverick’s suspension design is essentially the same as that of the Bronco Sport; up front (see above) there’s a MacPherson strut setup, and in the back (see below) is a semi-trailing arm with dual lateral links.
This is not a suspension design that lends itself to lots of wheel travel, so you can expect to frequently lift the tires up off the dirt while off-roading.
The Maverick Tremor Doesn’t Have The Hardware To Be Great Off-Road, But It Should Suffice For Most
The Ford Bronco Sport Badlands is okay off-road. When I reviewed it, I said it was well-suited for “light-to-medium difficulty off-roading.” Here’s my full conclusion from that review:
The Bronco Sport will be hard to modify with a lift kit, it doesn’t offer great articulation, and it doesn’t have a low-range transfer case for stress-free, low-speed rock crawling.
But for small adventures, the Bronco Sport is plenty capable.Available Trail Control acts as off-road cruise control, which works well in most conditions to keep the vehicle moving steadily under guidance. The Badlands’ four-wheel- drive system gets power to the ground, the 2.0-liter has plenty of torque to climb grades, and the vehicle’s overall geometry is good enough to allow for some fun, light-to-medium difficulty off-roading, depending on your bravery.
The Maverick Tremor is going to take the Bronco Sport Badland’s capability and reduce it considerably. Though the approach angle is actually improved by a little, the breakover angle is lower and the departure angle is much lower (33 degrees for the Bronco Sport, 22.2 for the Maverick Tremor). The 16-inch longer wheelbase and the extra low-mounted rocker panel length associated with it does the truck no favors, and the lack of a front camera doesn’t help, either.
In the context of any other Ford with the name “Tremor” on it (F-150, F-250, F-350), the Maverick is almost certainly less capable off-road. Unlike other Tremors, there’s no true rear locker, there’s no low range transfer case, wheel articulation is significantly worse, and underbody components seem more vulnerable. But in the context of, say, the Subaru Outback Wilderness or other off-road adventure vehicles meant to get you to your campsite down a dirt road, it should do just fine. I bet it will offer plenty of traction, the power is great, and the clearance is more than enough for most campers’ needs. Plus, the orange accents — the badges, the interior stitching, and the tow hooks — are a nice something to make the truck just that little bit different from other Mavericks, which are great all-around drivers.